Also coming to my attention during the weekend blog shutdown was this Princeton Alumni Weekly piece on the rhetoric of crisis in the humanities. Like several other authors before him, Gideon Rosen points out that there’s little numerical evidence of a real “crisis,” and that most of the cries of alarm you hear from academics these days have near-perfect matches in prior generations. The humanities have always been in crisis.
This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but Rosen goes on to offer an attempt at an explanation of why the sense of crisis is so palpable within the humanities, an explanation based on a comparison to the sciences. Which basically serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t spend much time with scientists.
The argument is basically that scholars in the humanities have a sense that they’re in crisis because their work doesn’t get the wide notice that work in science does:
Any educated person can rattle off a list of the great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years: the Big Bang, cloning, the Internet, etc. People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2013 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe. What does the average educated American know about the great scholarly achievements in the humanities in the past half-century? Nothing. And this is no accident.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. Science has produced some notable triumphs in the last half-century or so, and those are widely know of if not widely understood. The problem is when he continues on with his argument:
Any humanist can list dozens of groundbreaking books, and if you have the time and patience, he or she can begin to tell you why they matter. But there are profound limits on what you can learn about the humanities secondhand. Most discoveries in the humanities are about cultural objects — books, paintings, etc. More specifically, they are discoveries about the meanings of these objects, their connections to one another, and the highly specific ways in which they are valuable. And the trouble is that this sort of discovery simply cannot be conveyed in a convincing way to someone who has never wrestled with the things themselves. To choose just one example: In 2010 Princeton professor Leonard Barkan, one of the most distinguished humanists of our time, published a beautiful book about Michelangelo’s drawings. The book calls attention to the striking fact that nearly a third of these drawings contain scrawled text: from finished poems and strange fragments to shopping lists and notes to self. Barkan’s book shows beyond doubt that our experience of the drawings is deeper when the drawings and texts are read together. But if you don’t have the drawings (or the extraordinary reproductions in Barkan’s book) in front of you, what can this mean to you? A capsule summary of Barkan’s “discovery” — admittedly an odd word in this context — is like a verbal description of a food one has never tasted. The description may persuade you that there is something there worth tasting, but in the nature of the case, it cannot begin to convey the taste itself.
He then offers a second example, from his own field of philosophy, and concludes that “Like discoveries elsewhere in the humanities, discoveries in philosophy are incompressible: Their interest can only be conveyed at length by taking one’s interlocutor through the argument.”
There are two big problems with this. The first is a sneaky rhetorical jump when he moves from comparing the “great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years” to lamenting the lack of interest in a specific Princeton professor’s art history research. Those things really aren’t comparable, unless you want to say that a recent book about Michelangelo’s shopping lists is an intellectual triumph on the same level as the Big Bang. An actual apples-to-apples comparison would be between Barkan’s neglected book and, say, Princeton physics professor Mike Romalis’s experiments on fundamental symmetries. Romalis’s work is awesome, and I suspect I esteem his group’s publications as much as Rosen does Barkan’s art book. I doubt very much, though, that you would have any more luck finding people on the street who know about Lorentz violation tests at the South Pole and why they matter than you would finding people who know about Michelangelo’s drawings and why they’re interesting.
The bigger problem, though, is with the whole notion of research as “incompressible.” I almost choked on my tea when Rosen got to the part where he talks about how to address the problem:
Problems like this do not have quick solutions. Still, some of the main steps are clear enough. First, since the value of the humanities will be always lost on people who never have worked through a poem with someone who knows what he or she is talking about, humanists have a special obligation to see to it that teachers are well trained and that school curricula incorporate serious study of the humanities. (The new “Common Core” standards are a disappointment in this regard.) Second, we must face the fact that while scientists have armies of journalists eager to popularize their work, we humanists will get nowhere unless we write books that non-experts can read with pleasure.
Ah, yes, those armies of journalists. Who are so well paid, well publicized, and well thought of in the scientific community…
In fact, it’s not at all difficult to find scientists making almost exactly the same complaints about “incompressible” research. The most common complaint from scientists about science journalism is that it’s just a bunch of dumbing-down and over-hyping of results that can only truly be appreciated if you grind through all the details. The intersection of Rosen’s piece and the whole BICEP2 business I ranted about in the previous post— which is in part an incompressibility argument– made for one of those great “Information Supercollider” moments you get in blogdom.
When scientists complain that their research is impossible to summarize and make interesting without losing its
precious bodily fluids essential core, they’re wrong. It’s not easy to do, and it’s often particularly difficult for those who are closest to the research, but at the heart of every scientific experiment, there’s a simple and interesting idea.
I’m fairly certain that the same holds for scholarship in arts and literature, as well. It may not be easy, but I have a hard time believing that it’s impossible to distill humanities research down to a short, simple description. Mostly because it’s regularly done– Rosen makes a pretty good stab at it with his description of Barkan’s book (which sounds interesting; not interesting enough for me to actually seek it out and read it, but interesting in an “Oh, that’s cool” sort of way that would work in a cocktail party/ elevator pitch context). And great works of philosophy are regularly boiled down to a few pages or even a few lines, mostly in the works of later philosophers. Among the handful of non-science books I kept from my college days is a survey of ethical philosophy that was a supplemental text for a course on ethics in literature, which gives short summaries of a wide range of big-name philosophers and people working in the same general vein. It doesn’t cover all the details of, say, Kant’s various intricate arguments, but there’s enough there to get the right basic idea, in a manner that makes it seem interesting to a casual reader.
Is that kind of treatment going to convey to the average reader the full majesty of humanities scholarship? No, but remember the standard set out at the start of this: “People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2013 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe.” If that level of incomplete understanding is good enough to point at as something science has that the humanities lack, then it ought to be enough on the other side of the Two Cultures gap, as well.
Now, of course, there’s a core point to Rosen’s argument that I do agree with, namely that scholars of all sorts ought to do a better job of communicating their results to the general public. This is largely a self-inflicted wound– the cultures of incompressibility and incomprehensibility have come about because academics both inside and outside the sciences have chosen to reward narrow technical publications over broader general-interest ones. What matters for promotion and professional status is publication aimed exclusively at other scholars– a scholarly monograph that maybe a hundred other academics will read will do more to advance your career than a general-audience book that reaches thousands.
That’s a choice that we as academics– both in science and elsewhere– have made, and it’s a choice we can un-make if we really want to. It requires a fundamental shift in mindset, though, away from the notion of incompressible scholarship, to a recognition that anything one group of humans find interesting enough to be worth doing can and should be made interesting to a wide range of other humans. And that this is something worth celebrating and rewarding.